The trial of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha started on Wednesday even as human rights groups and civil society activists criticized the government saying the case against him is politically motivated. Sokha, who was arrested two years ago, is accused of conspiring with the United States to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The trial against the National Rescue Party co-founder is bogus and the trial is a sham, Human Rights Watch''s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement. Independent civil society groups and journalists have been denied permission to watch the proceedings at the court. "The handling of the case thus far is already littered with concerns regarding adherence to #FairTrial standards. It is paramount that the trial is scrutinized by the public to ensure fair trial standards are upheld and justice is delivered," Cambodian Centre for Human Rights executive director Sopheap Chak said on Twitter.

Kem Sokha, opposition leader in Cambodia
Kem Sokha, opposition leader in Cambodia Wikimedia Commons

Arrest helped Prime Minister Hun Sen win another term

Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 after the government accused him of treason, based on a video footage that showed him talking about getting advice from US pro-democracy groups. The leader, who has remained in detention for most part of the last two years, faces up to 30 years in prison if he is found guilty, Australia's Examiner reported citing local media.

Sokha's National Rescue Party was dissolved by Cambodia's Supreme Court in November 2017. "We know that not only Kem Sokha has become a hostage of this trial, the entire opposition has too," Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said.

It was alleged that the move against Sokha was meant to help Prime Minister Hun Sen secure another term in the 2018 general election. After Sokha was jailed and his party dissolved, Hun Sen's Cambodia People's Party won another term in power.

Kem Sokha reiterates innocence

"I know strongly that I am totally innocent so I have to go to the court and challenge the charge and demand that they drop the case ... I have never done anything wrong so the court has to drop the charges," Kem Sokha said on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.

Police arrested Sokha from his home in Phnom Penh in the middle of the night on Sept. 4, 2017. He remained in jail for a year and was put under house arrest later on. His treatment as a convicted criminal for the past 26 months has seriously infringed on Kem Sokha's right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, said the director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, according to IANS.

Hun Sen's 35-year reign

Cambodia PM vows to 'eliminate' opponents who protest
President of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a ceremony. Reuters

Hun Sen is one of the longest-serving prime ministers in the world. The Cambodian strongman has been in power since 1985. Though the 65-year-old is credited with turning around the economy, he is seen as an authoritarian figure with a poor human rights record. Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has faced little resistance over the decades, and the prime minister has vowed he would stay in power for at least another ten years. Though he was a Khmer Rouge commander, he fled to Vietnam in 1977 to join troops opposed to the Khmer Rouge. He became prime minister at the age of 33.